Last Thursday, the same day Facebook’s parent company changed its name to the new Meta name, Mark Zuckerberg took a meandering tour of the Metaverse – the still-hypothetical next phase of the Internet, a unified space that blends digital and physical reality. – in a presentation video for the Facebook Connect 2021 event. The metaverse, which Zuckerberg has already touted in revenue calls, will be “an Internet personified where you experience, not just watch it,” he said. he declared, as he walked through a series of sumptuous interiors, ambiguous real or rendered. . Users will be able to communicate and navigate “through different layers of reality,” he continued, watching a concert with a friend in virtual reality or collaborating with a colleague’s hologram across a desk.
Zuckerberg’s upbeat tone as he roamed this fantastic world contrasted sharply with anything his company went through in the real world. According to the leaked files known as Facebook Papers, Facebook has long been aware of the damage done by its social media, from how Instagram is escalating teen body image issues to how Facebook is speeding up misinformation and misinformation. ideological extremism via its algorithmic Food. Zuckerberg’s pivot to the Metaverse is a useful distraction from an unflattering press cycle, of course, but it also signals a much longer-term strategy. Zuckerberg seems ready to leave behind all the pesky problems of his business, like relics of an already distant and irrelevant story. It focuses on a newer and better world, a world in which the insidious problems caused by Facebook are solved with a simple solution: even more Facebook – sorry, Meta – in all aspects of our lives.
Tightly composed and robotically scripted, Zuckerberg’s video looks more like a cult prophecy than a product announcement. With waxy skin and glassy eyes, dressed in a dark long-sleeved shirt and signature jeans, Zuckerberg appears a bit more human than the replicating avatar he uses to demonstrate immersive 3D experiences. The metaverse will be less invasive and more organic than the current version of the Internet, he explains, in the relentlessly sunny tone of a pharmaceutical salesperson. “Your devices will no longer be the center of your attention,” he says, not to mention that Facebook and Instagram are among the addictive targets of our attention on our devices. The metaverse will be “more natural and alive,” he continues. “You’ll feel like you’re in a different world together, not just on your computer all by yourself. “
Throughout the presentation, Zuckerberg is obsessed with notions of ‘presence’ and ‘shared sense of space’, as if the metaverse could somehow provide us with a way to disconnect from the internet rather than from us. suck more deeply. Watching his video inspires a heightened sense of cognitive dissonance: Very little technology is represented in renderings of the Metaverse’s spacious homes and offices. was designed by Charles and Ray Eames. What is barely recognized is the fact that accessing this hypothetical world would require sitting on your couch, strapped to a virtual reality headset and wearing motion-tracking gloves, which doesn’t is not a particularly “natural” state. A single reference to “all-day immersive experiences” suggests that Zuckerberg, far from helping us escape mediation technology, expects us to engage in it for many hours at a time. Work, entertainment, socializing, and even education are all fodder for the metaverse. In language eerily similar to how he once spoke of Facebook, Zuckerberg points out that the metaverse would facilitate “the most important experience of all: connecting with people.”
In essence, Meta’s virtual reality looks less like a radical leap into the future and more like a bloated version of Second Life, the collective online universe-building game that’s been around since 2003. In the Times, Amanda Hess described the atmosphere within Zuckerberg’s demo as “a virtual retirement community where isolated millennials can live out their last days.” For an act of unlimited imagination, where anything is theoretically possible, Zuckerberg’s metaverse is surprisingly lacking in any sense of taste. Supernatural, flat and mundane, it’s a dream world that looks a bit like watching Netflix in three dimensions. The avatars resemble Pixar characters – ageless and characterless, smoothed out in uniformity. The possible activities presented are also more or less childish: playing cards in a virtual space station with all your friends, while living in avatars of robots; organize a surprise party on a huge landscape of cakes; explore a virtual solar system projected into the sky through augmented reality glasses; and visit a heavenly mansion designed by a makeup influencer to reflect her personal brand. Will such offers really encourage us to put on VR headsets?
Zuckerberg is careful to recognize that the metaverse is not yet technologically feasible, and that any execution of it must be open, a collaboration between different companies and platforms. And yet Meta, named after the thing itself, seems to want to create the tools and infrastructure that underpin it all. In Zuckerberg’s description, the company will build the devices through which we experience the metaverse, the software that allows developers to design experiences for it, and the markets where creators will sell their virtual productions and users will buy them, may -being in the form of non-fungible tokens, which Zuckerberg mentions several times. Regardless of their degree of openness or interoperability in the metaverse (the ability to use the same digital goods on all platforms), such offers would likely allow Meta to profit from every transaction. It’s not hard to spot a message to shareholders in Zuckerberg’s video: he will dominate this new space just as he did in the nineties version of social media.
When you live in the “reality layers” predicted by Meta, certain experiences will occur in real life, the boring old physical world. Others will perform in a mixed area, with digital content covering our perceptions of the physical, and still others in the fully digital realm. What Zuckerberg’s presentation ignores is that we already inhabit a world where the digital and the physical intermingle, as we have been doing for over a decade now. Algorithmic digital platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Spotify, TikTok, and Amazon, influence the way we socialize, receive information, consume culture, find jobs, do work, and spend money. It doesn’t matter if we only interact in the physical world, we do all of these things with the added awareness that they are also happening online, with consequences spilling over into the physical and digital space. One need only look at the GameStop action mania, the anxiety of being “canceled” for posting the wrong thing on social media, or the acceleration of TikTok’s campaign to emancipate Britney Spears to see that diapers reality are not so separate after all.
What Zuckerberg’s version of the Metaverse offers, ultimately, is a way to visualize the mixed reality world that digital platforms have already created. The problem is that anything built on these platforms, or by the same stakeholders, is likely to suffer from the same issues that we now know so well, especially a centralization of power in the hands of people like Zuckerberg. Who among us wants to live in another world of his creation? At one point in the video, he is perched on a leather chair in front of a fireplace, like a president addressing the nation. “We have years to go before the metaverse we envision is fully realized,” he says. It’s a reassuring message: by the time average users have to deal with the metaverse – which is touted as inevitable – Meta will have figured it out for them and built the most palatable version. It’s worth remembering, however, that what is shown in the Facebook Connect video is design fiction – not a representation of actual technology, but a rendering of what could possibly ever exist. A Zuckerbergian future is not as inevitable as it suggests. In the end, it is not the companies but the users, by dint of their commitment, who will decide whether its vision becomes reality.